Adventure Time is currently the most beloved cartoon on television. But it also confuses people who try very hard to categorize it, especially those who try to understand why it is beloved and why by so many adults in particular. Most kids’ shows or movies that adults manage to watch are written with grown-up in-jokes and occasional winks at the supposed parents who are watching these cartoons with their kids. The primary audience for a kids’ show is the kid. It’s marketing. Everyone knows that. But you have to throw a bone for the adults too, so the writers sit at their desks going, “Psst! We got your back, Mom and Dad!”
What’s interesting about Adventure Time is that it feels like it deliberately forgets its target audience. Writer and creator, Pendleton Ward said of its crossover appeal: “…Primarily we write the show to entertain ourselves. Sometimes I recognize a joke that reminds me of something that I would’ve busted up at as a kid. I’m happy when I see those kinds of jokes. Because the show is for kids more than anyone else, but most of the time we are just trying to crack ourselves up and trying not to worry about much other than that.”
But the dichotomy of kid-shows-for-kids and grown-up-shows-for-grown-ups still exists, which can make coverage of Adventure Time kind of ridiculous. In an article about the show, NPR plays up the dichotomy in its title: An ‘Adventure’ for Kids and Maybe for Their Parents Too. But the article goes on to speak with Lev Grossman, a writer, book critic, and Ivy Leaguer with a long resume of notable publications (Time Magazine, Wired, Salon.com, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal) and interviews (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling) under his belt.
The article also introduces Grossman as an “intellectual.” I don’t know if this was his idea, or NPR’s but just to give you some context, Lev Grossman is a bald dude with thick framed glasses. So you know he’s an actual intellectual (and not the stuffy, old-fashioned kind, but the cool, hip kind), and you know that his endorsement for Adventure Time is legit. He proves it when they quote him on Adventure Time, saying:
“I am a little bit obsessed with it,” Grossman continues. “It’s rich and complicated the way Balzac’s work is, which is a funny thing to say about a cartoon.”
The only credit I can give him here is that yes, it is funny to say that about a cartoon. “Balzac,” really? If he can make a good argument for it then I’m totally open to it, but it’s hard to find any similarities between Adventure Time and, say, Sarrasine. Oh wait, Grossman was just saying it’s complicated like Balzac. So the Grossman quote really doesn’t make an actual comparison. The article simply uses the name of a famous, French, 19th century writer (a writer whose name most people still snicker at) to legitimize a kids’ show.
Is anyone else starting to see what’s so goofy about this? NPR has gone out of its way to say: “Look! Adventure Time is not just for babies and stoners! Even Lev Grossman watches it. And he’s an intellectual (read: stoner). You can tell because he reads Balzac!” Grossman goes on to articulate other reasons for his love of Adventure Time. These are ones I can get behind, like how he likens the Ice King’s slow conversion to an obsessive, forgetful, and crazy individual to his father’s progressive Alzheimer’s disease. But I’m writing this to talk about the odd phenomenon of trying to understand a show like Adventure Time. When a show like Adventure Time is picked up—way too late, I might add—by adults (as opposed to 18-35 year old manchildren), it suddenly becomes incredibly important. They want to shout about it from mountaintops. They want to compare it to other forms of high art. They want it to be endorsed by other real-life adults, like the ones that make up NPR. But by this point, the real-life adults are saying the exact same thing the babies and stoners have been saying since they watched their first episode: this shit is good.
Why do these adults have so much trouble figuring it out? Because it’s postmodern, and because postmodernism confuses people. If it confuses you, let the Ice King and Monster Princess tell you about what it all means:
Ice King: You have all my favorite parts of my favorite princesses!
Monster Princess: I’m just a bunch of…. STOLEN PARTS?!
Ice King: The parts don’t matter, it’s YOU that matters!
Postmodernism is derivative. It’s the blurring of lines between genres, the blurring of high and low art, it asks questions about progress and modernity, oftentimes it doesn’t give a flying rat’s ass about historical accuracy. It likes popular culture, monster movies, and fart jokes, and despite what your lame art/film/lit friends tell you, it doesn’t have to be snooty. Postmodern work knows who Britney Spears is, even if its characters or subject matter do not. This extra awareness serves as an almost sixth-sense in the way it’s used to reach out to an audience. It’s what allows Adventure Time to include commentary, like when the show Rule 63‘d itself by making an alternate title opening, or its progressive commentary, as seen in its queer subtext, or cultural commentary as seen in its playful jab at recognizable movie tropes. It understands the present world in which it exists, and it is fully aware of the viewer. You don’t have to “get it,” but lots of times you can because it is some of the most accessible types of media out there.
We’re living in a postmodern world RIGHT NOW. If you entrust “high art” to guide you to new and interesting forms of media, and if you look to “high art” to legitimize it, you’ll be finding the interesting stuff long after everyone else has already found it. An appeal to older and more sophisticated media doesn’t make a show more legitimate to its primary audience. It only makes it more comfortable for people like Grossman to consume it. The drawback of postmodern work—especially good postmodern work—is that it can be really hard to find a place for it. What if it has the aesthetic of an Ansel Adams, but it doesn’t belong in a museum? What if it has the richness and complexity of the work of a respected novelist, but it’s a TV show for kids? Where does it belong? Actually, it’s a question the show likes to address over and over again, whether it’s through the Earl of Lemongrab’s inability to fit in, Monster Princess’ origins that recall the origins of Frankenstein’s monster, BMO pretending to be human, or Finn possibly finding a lost human race in the Land of Ooo.
Adventure Time is an example of a postmodern work that appeals people of different backgrounds, ages, and perspectives because it is so highly inclusive. It has all your favorite parts of all your favorite things, rolled into one thing that matters: the nostalgia of Calvin and Hobbes, the psychedelic feel of Yellow Submarine, the harrowing action of a DnD game. Hell, there’s probably a little bit of Balzac in there too.